By KEVIN BRADY
Delayed for months, Taco Bus is now parked in Brandon.
The popular restaurant had planned to start serving customers in May but opened last week.
The company cited “reasons beyond our control” for the delay.
The iconic school bus at Falkenburg Road just north of State Road 60 specializes in Mexican, vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free recipes. The restaurant, with seating inside and outside for more than 100 diners, is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday with the doors open 24 hours Thursday through Saturday.
“We have had a lot of people come in so far,” said owner and chef Rene Valenzuela. “I knew Brandon would be a popular location but I am surprised by just how many customer we have had since we opened.”
Construction issues and permitting caused the delay in opening, Valenzuela said.
“We converted an old concrete plant to a restaurant here and we had to redo everything from restrooms to walls. Everything was done from scratch.”
And while he wouldn’t be drawn on just how much it cost to open the restaurant, the company’s largest to date, Valenzuela is sure it will pay off.
“We are bringing a service that is need here and I know a lot of people want us in the area. Brandon is somewhere I always wanted to come to. We have invested in what I think is a very good location. It will be our largest Taco Bus so far and I expect us to do very well.”
Valenzuela did his own research before deciding Brandon was ripe for his brand of cuisine.
“I drove around the entire area and didn’t really see anything other the usual late-night places open. There was nowhere for people to go on the weekends or late at night that served quality, fresh food. Nowhere to go after a night out or a wedding party but we are famous for that and I knew it would be something we could offer the area.”
The absence of any real vegetarian options was the clincher for Valenzuela.
“Vegetarian options seemed to be an afterthought for some places in the area but that is an area where we are very strong so I think we are bringing something that people have also been looking for there.”
The first Taco Bus opened in Seminole Heights 20 years ago and also operates in St. Petersburg, North Tampa and downtown Tampa. A Tampa institution, the restaurant has been featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives,” the Travel Channel’s “Man Vs. Food Nation” and the Cooking Channel’s “Eat Street.”
“I grew up in Mexico serving and enjoying Mexican street food,” says Valenzuela. “I’m proud that the Taco Bus can continue this tradition here in Florida. Whether you visit one of our sit-down restaurants or order from our mobile food trucks, we offer casual, festive dining and friendly service that celebrate the long, colorful journey we’ve taken from our humble street roots.”
Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, the Taco Bus menu features as well a variety of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free selections with “traditional recipes from every region of the country, each prepared daily with fresh ingredients in a custom kitchen,” according to the restaurant’s website.
The customers are already there, Valenzuela believes.
“We have our mobile trucks and any time we would do an event in the Brandon area people would always ask when we are coming out there. It’s something we also heard often on our Facebook page and I know we have people from the area who drive to our Tampa locations just to pick up the food so it is a natural fit for us.”
The new location will boost seating for 88 diners inside with capacity for another 40 outside under a canopy, making it the largest Taco Bus location by far. The main restaurant at Hillsborough and Nebraska avenues, seats 46 people.
While other restaurants have struggled to keep their stoves warm and doors open in the last few years as the United States went through a recession, business has been booming for Taco Bus.
“People who might have gone out to an expensive restaurant once a week and spent $40 for dinner are now only doing that once a week in this economy,” Valenzuela said. “But instead of spending $40, they come to us and spend $20 and feed the whole family. Yes, you can save a dollar or two over us by going to a McDonald’s but the difference in quality and freshness is huge.”
Just a block from State Road 60 and minutes from Interstate 75, Taco Bus also expects to serve Brandon’s large commuter community as well as local workers with its popular online ordering menu.
“We would hope to serve that market of people who are commuting as well as the people who live and work in the immediate area. It’s a huge market out there.”